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Complete Streets: Designing Roadways For The Benefit Of All

Model D  |  By Posted: 03/27/2012 11:52 am

Complete Streets Detroit
Cyclists on the Dequindre Cut bike path in Detroit. Flick photo by healthiermi.

This article originally appeared in Model D.

"Struck by vehicle" should have no place in an obituary, but from 2001-2009, it found its way into 1,468 death notices, and cost Michigan $6.31 billion. In Michigan, non-motorized pedestrian safety has been a struggle. Our state now ranks 19th nationally on the Pedestrian Danger Index--making Michigan’s informal title, "America’s High Five," seem like somewhat of a misnomer. But how has Michigan sunk so low?

Unsafe street and road design play a big role in pedestrian deaths, experts say.

Imagine a Michigan road system where the right to walk is afforded the same respect as the right to drive, where riding a bike doesn’t mean risking imminent death, and where a handicapped person can use public transit without having to strong-arm a wheelchair up a curb. The Michigan Complete Streets Coalition seeks to make that vision a reality.

"We have 70 local Complete Streets resolutions and ordinances that have been adopted across the state," says John Lindenmayer, Co-Chair of the Michigan Complete Streets Coalition. "That’s the largest number of policies adopted in any state, according to the National Complete Streets coalition."

A Complete Streets policy means designing roadways and communities for all users. Bicyclists get their own clearly marked lanes. Pedestrians get crosswalks, often with safety medians that allow a stop in the middle of the street. Public transit users get usable transit stops with curb ramps, benches, and overhangs to protect from inclement Michigan weather.

Fortunately, there are funds available for communities that want to improve non-motorized transportation. Standard grant applications can be paired with a Complete Streets policy, to give cities and towns access to funding through a number of federal highway programs. However, much to Lindenmayer’s dismay, these funds--for transportation enhancements, routes for school, and air quality--are currently being debated in congress, and are at risk of being eliminated.

"We need to at the very least protect the small pots of funding we have," Lindenmayer says.

In Michigan, some budget-wary city planners have been taking first steps toward making streets "complete" by putting streets on "road diets." With a road diet, a town takes a four-lane road, removes a lane, then adds a turn lane. In the remaining lane space, planners have the space needed for bike lanes on both sides of the road.

Studies show that road diets result in reduced crashes, increased property values, improved sight distance, more on-street parking, and better pedestrian facilities.

"Road diets are the low-hanging fruit with the most bang for your buck that you can get done relatively quickly," Lindenmayer adds. "It’s just paint on the road."

"People are starting to realize the economic development side to this," says Sarah Panken, the Active Communities Manager at the Michigan Fitness Foundation. "Complete Streets attract business, visitors, and are great for tourism. It’s great for attracting and retaining young talent."

The website for Michigan Complete Streets Coalition lists myriad community benefits of having Complete Streets: fewer vehicle crashes, more active communities, higher real-estate value, reduced noise pollution. The problem, though, isn’t convincing decision makers of Complete Street benefits; it’s getting them to follow through with execution and implementation once they’ve filed a resolution.

"We're over-celebrating," laments Todd Scott, Coordinator for Detroit Greenways.

“A lot of communities are passing Complete Streets resolutions, but have no concern with doing anything different," he says. "I don't think there's checking going on.”

It appears some Complete Streets resolutions, like New Year’s resolutions to hit the gym, have been faltering in the face of dissipating enthusiasm.

"A Complete Streets resolution sounds really good when you read it, but I’m not sure how many communities are committed to making that happen--or to sharing a vision of what it really is," Scott continues. "Clawson, after passing their own resolution, ironically removed one of its crosswalks, making some of its roads actually less complete."

Of Michigan’s 70 filed policies, 14 are ordinances and 56 are resolutions. An ordinance bears the legal teeth needed for a Complete Streets policy to get planned, designed, and executed in full. A resolution, however, is more of a pledge, or as Lindenmayer puts it, "a proclamation of support of the concept of Complete Streets."

Nevertheless, in order to keep dust from gathering on resolutions, the Michigan Complete Streets Coalition has been sending out kits explaining how to transform resolutions into ordinances. Each kit includes examples of successful non-motorized plans for towns to use in constructing their own ordinances.

"The planning process has to be woven into what you do on an everyday basis," Pankin says.

Implementation isn’t the coalition’s only snag. Another hurdle Michigan’s Complete Streets policies face is education. Misunderstandings regarding costs, context, and how to deploy Complete Streets has stymied its development in some communities.

"A rural road is going to look a lot different than an urban core," Lindenmayer says. "Sidewalks, bike lanes, wide shoulders, countdown timers--you can't cram every one of those into every project."

To help hone budding policies, there are multiple Complete Streets education modules online. On the Coalition’s site, you’ll find "Complete Streets 101," which documents what a good policy should look like, what improvements cost, and resources for planners.

Lindenmayer also maintains that costs are minimal when starting a Complete Streets policy. Simple starting points, such as road diets, cost little next to expensive retrofits. And Complete Streets, despite the raised eyebrows of road commissioners across the state, can be cost effective when done right. The simple addition of a countdown clock on a street corner can be done for as little as $2,000 per intersection.

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us. Funding is always a concern," Lindenmayer says. "Whatever project you’re trying to do, there are always dollars and cents associated with it."

Financial obstacles notwithstanding, the movement has been gaining momentum in the last couple years.

Recently, the Michigan Environmental Council conducted a study with focus groups in Southfield and Grand Rapids. The results showed that citizens are more interested in seeing sidewalks and bike lanes--not just more roads.

The growing awareness and power of Complete Streets is in part a result of the dialog the movement has created--both online, and in city offices. Michigan residents are now attuned to the concerns of bicyclists and pedestrians looking for safer, healthier communities.

Scrolling through the Michigan Complete Streets Coalition partners page, interested readers will discover a veritable heap of logos from like-minded collaborators. These partnerships--with groups like AARPA, the League of Michigan Bicyclists, SEMCOG, and the American Heart Association--have led to community forums engaging Michigan residents in starting their own Complete Streets movement.

Some Michigan residents have created their own advocacy groups. Groups of citizens from Clinton, Eaton, and Ingham counties formed the Mid-Michigan Active Transportation Coalition (MMATC) in 2008 to promote policies and programs that integrate active transportation choices in Mid-Michigan communities.

These partnerships have helped coalition leaders engage the community in Complete Streets policies. Myra Tetteh, Chairwoman of Detroit’s Complete Streets workgroup, stresses getting involved with a city’s decision makers.

"You should have city government involvement early on--even if you're just writing a grant," says Tetteh. "You all have to work together; the city planning commission cannot do it by themselves. It has to be a combined effort with city government."

Currently, Detroit has its own Complete Streets ordinance sitting on a desk in city council waiting to get voted on, which would ratify Detroit’s dedication to pedestrian and bicyclist safety. The only problem is, in a city like Detroit, that wait happens to be a long one.

Myra dreams that Detroit will become a leader in the nation for Complete Streets in the next 10-20 years. She wants to knock New York off the pedestal. "We want people coming to interview Detroit because it's so unique. I see news cameras, I see people from around the world coming here to our city," she says.

But until then, Detroit’s first order of business is getting its ordinance passed through a busy city council.

"I wouldn't say it’s stuck in legal, at least not yet," Tetteh says. "It’s making its way through the legal process, but as you know, there are other issues in Detroit that take precedence."

Fortunately, legal procedures for Complete Streets are about to get a lot more firepower.

In August 2010, Michigan became the 14th state to adopt Complete Streets legislation. Two public acts--PA 134 and 13--were passed by then Gov. Jennifer Granholm. PA 134 mandates that the Michigan Department of Transportation formulate a Complete Streets policy and work with local residents to provide Complete Streets assistance. PA 135 requires that Complete Streets principles be included in local master plans.

Since then, 18 members from like-minded interest groups have served on an advisory panel for Complete Streets at the state level, aiding the State Transportation Commission in drafting its own internal policy. This August is the deadline for the State Transportation Commission to enact an internal Complete Streets policy for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

At the end of the day, are Complete Streets something Michigan residents should be optimistic about?

In short--yes.

However, Lindenmayer underscores the need for persistence.

"Complete Streets in and of itself is a new movement. It's a long-term vision of where we want to take our communities. One of the keys is just having patience; we have to keep beating the drum. The next step for these communities is to back up these resolutions they've written and endorsed, and develop them into plans."

While the Michigan Complete Streets Coalition continues to beat the drum, it’s important that community leaders, policy makers, and advocates stay aware of the challenges Complete Streets policies face, and focus on educating their communities of their benefits.

"The gravest of policy errors," Myra Tetteh says, "is when we pass a law, and we don’t look at that law for years to come."

K.G. Wassus is a Michigan-based freelance writer. This piece is running in Model D and all our sister publications.

Flickr photo by healthiermi.

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